Many of the poorest of the poor in Lawndale feel as if they have been exploited for years by Cecil Butler and his company called Lawndale Restoration as well as U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.
Until last year, no one paid close attention to the cries of the people in the Lawndale community. People only started to cast their eyes to this West Side neighborhood when one of Cecil Butler’s apartment buildings’ roofs caved in, endangering the safety of residents.
The subsidized housing that Butler provided for Lawndale residents left many of them literally without a roof to call their own. According to the Chicago Tribune, more than 1,800 code violations were found in a fall 2004 inspection. Butler’s buildings suffer from mice and roach infestation, rotting ceilings, roof leaks, dangling electrical wires, and dirty sewage in many of the basements. There are lopsided, rickety porches and stairs. Year after year, these same places passed inspections and federal HUD money kept coming in, like rain through an open window.
Residents were demanding to know how did that keep occurring? Where were these same inspectors earlier when they passed these buildings to continue to receive federal dollars?
“Nothing is going to change,” Shirley Beck, a long-time resident of Lawndale, said. “We have been living like this for so long and nobody cared. What is going to make the city care now?”
A number of activist groups are organizing the people of Lawndale to fight for better housing. They have also been fighting among each other.
“We have been working with the residents of Lawndale for over a year now. We are working to help protect their options and interest, and to make sure that what they decide is what is best for them,” said Maurice Redd, executive director of the Lawndale Neighborhood Organization. Redd explained that the median income level in Lawndale Restoration buildings was $20,000 and less.
The residents affected by the terrible building conditions were given two options: take a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher and move into the private market or to move into another project-based subsidized housing building. The folks who chose Section 8 were not to get any additional financial help from HUD.
In September 2004, the in-your-face group called V.O.T.E. – Voices Of The Ex-offenders – hosted a tour of Butler’s properties for then US Senate candidate Alan Keyes, the Republican nominee. The tour included one of Butler’s buildings that had collapsed after a car ran into a support pillar.
At the time, Keyes made blunt statement to the media about the dilapidated properties. He alleged that Butler was a affiliate of Mayor Richard M. Daley, and that’s why the buildings were allowed to continue in disrepair.
V.O.T.E. organizers also made a number of accusations, coming out against the presence of another activist group in Lawndale, the Association of Communities for Reform Now, or ACORN.
“The residents of Lawndale have been under siege for years. Cecil Butler is a tyrant as well as an alleged thief. Most of the residents of Lawndale are not even aware about him nor are they aware about the group called ACORN,” said Paul McKinley, a member of V.O.T.E.
“ACORN has been around for years and they didn’t do anything until our group came on the scene. Now they want to become the great white saviors of the Black community,” McKinley said.
“ACORN is organizing the residents of Lawndale who wish to stay in their project-based buildings,” said Madeline Talbot, Executive Director for Chicago ACORN. She said the group collected 615 signatures out of 1,048 apartments for residents who want to keep their project-based subsidies.
“HUD wants to voucher out the residents of Lawndale but what HUD isn’t telling the Lawndale residents is that the housing market is extremely tight and that they are also vouchering out low-income public housing residents that are being relocated underneath the CHA Transformation Plan and many of them are losing their vouchers,” Talbot went on to say.
Talbot also explained that many of the tenants who relocated with Section 8 Vouchers after the car demolished one of Butler’s buildings were losing their vouchers because they could not install their utilities.
I called Cecil Butler and tried to talk to him about his buildings. “I have been murdered; they have crucified me,” Butler said, sounding wounded like a shot deer by the negative news surrounding his buildings.
Butler’s properties are allegedly due to be confiscated and there is talk from the city that the properties may be divided up by 60 different developers.
Tags: Chicago, february march 2005 issue, HUD, Lawndale Housing, living conditions, maintenance, public housing, public housing residents, Section 8, Voices of the Ex-Offenders, VOTE, West Side